Houston Calling

Benjamin Wesley interview, in-store at Cactus

July 9th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Local musician Benjamin Wesley plays an in-store performance at Cactus Music this Saturday (7.11.09) at 3pm. I have been a fan of Wesley’s since seeing Basses Loaded play a while back, but it’s his recent solo release, Geschichte–and his one-man-band performances–that really have people talking (click here for a video). Read my recent review.

Benjamin Wesley recently answered a few questions about the album for Houston Calling.

Houston Calling: How did you get started making music?

Benjamin Wesley: I started making music when I was a teenager. I guess when I was 15 I dug out my mothers old guitar from her closet and started teaching myself chords and strumming. I would play along to Simon and Garfunkel albums and The Mamas and The Papas, learning how they made changes and structure. I had been writing poetry since I was 10 or 11, so it worked in a natural progression for me, melding the two together. I had a buddy of mine that introduced me to punk music and after I had learned a few power chords we started a garage band called “effigy.” We never played for anyone but I guess it was around that time that I started going out to shows and the idea of being a musician really appealed to me. I developed a knack for stringed instruments so I just started collecting whatever I could; banjos, violins, and a lot of guitars. I would spend most of my free time playing and I guess back then I had a lot of free time.

HC: It seems like quite a jump from your work in TFT to what you’ve done with Geschichte (and with Basses Loaded). How did the songs on this album come about? Are they something you’ve been developing for a while?

BW: My current solo work is a bit removed from Tha Fucking Transmissions, which is a hip-hop outfit that embraces rap, punk, funk, and blues, and Basses Loaded, which was a four-piece experimental rock band with a drummer and three bass guitars. Both projects were experiments for me. In TFT I sort of gave myself free reign to create music I wouldn’t normally create without the addition of rap and soul vocals. I started writing darker and more energetic sort of stuff. It was in TFT that I learned to play bass and then started toying with playing both bass and guitar simultaneously.

With Basses Loaded I was the front man and I got to really let go and dance and sing. During that time, though, I had been recording solo music–mainly singing over acoustic guitar–but it seemed too limited, just one guitar. I wanted my solo music to have the same appeal as the other two bands. So the songs came about while writing and performing shows in the other two bands as a sort of challenge to myself. I think the premise to the whole thing was to see how much controlled sound I could create and manipulate completely on my own. Also, I was very interested in being in a big sounding band but with no other band members. I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone but myself. So to answer your question, I think the songs on the album were developed through incorporating what I wanted the live show to be like. The approach was the biggest thing.

HC: You recorded locally at SugarHill Studios, correct? Was it important to you to make the album in Houston? Why or why not?

BW: Yeah, it was kind of a coincidence that I was able to record at SugarHill. It must have been just a few shows after debuting my project that the opportunity to record in one of the finest studios in Texas, at a good rate, with a good engineer, presented itself. Chris Longwood, an old co-worker and friend of mine, recorded the album during his internship, right before he was asked to join the SugarHill team, and these guys are top notch, so he had the knowledge and he knew his shit. I guess having the right person recording the album was more important for me than making the album in Houston per se. But we hustled. Recording studios don’t pay for themselves. I had two nights to get it right. We started recording at midnight and finished both sessions sometime before 5 or 6 in the morning.

HC: I had heard great things about your live show way before ever seeing it in person. It lived up to the “legend” and I was pleased to see so many people rabid about your songs. Are you happy with how the album turned out and how audiences have reacted so far?

BW: Well, I had finished the actual recording quickly, but we took some time mixing the songs. After that was done I had to wait for the artwork, I was moving a lot, fires, floods, plagues, etc. I had a bag full of excuses that kept me from getting it pressed. I regret having waited so long to just get it out there, but I had listened and dissected it to the point where I didn’t know how I felt about it anymore. I had put a good amount of pressure on this thing that only a few people had heard, so when the record was available and I started getting positive responses I was glad for that. Hell, once it got out there and I started letting people know it was available I had business men telling me their nine year old was humming “Have You Ever Died?” on the way to school, and people saying it’s been in their car for a week. That’s so fucking awesome to me. As far as the live show, I wouldn’t say I can hold any type of “legend” status. I just wanted to see what I could do.

HC: You play all of the instruments in your live set — how did you get the idea to make your music this way?

BW: Well, I have probably written over a few hundred songs and played half as many solo shows sporadically for three or four years before writing Geschichte. Sometimes I would play over laptop beats or just sing with my guitar, but it was never right. It got boring for me and if it was boring for me I’m sure it was the same for the audience. I wanted my set to be engaging for the both of us. I wanted something more complex, something with layers and texture. I started to test different approaches of playing multiple instruments simultaneously, seeing what I could and couldn’t pull off. I also spent a good amount of time understanding the versatility of my instruments and machines. I wanted to create grand backgrounds that would complement the lyrics and singing, and ultimately, perform visually interesting live experiences.

HC: Lyrics are important to me, and when something grabs me and makes me think and wonder what the musician was thinking or going through when he or she wrote a particular song, I know it’s something I’ll listen to forever. On Geschichte, for me that song is the title track. I know I’m not alone when I say that the lines, “And the bombs they go off in the distance / From all around and you hear the sound / And you’re hiding under an overpass and you take my hand to higher ground / From up above the concrete crumbles and we both get crushed or swallowed up / And when you awoke and you were still alive you greeted time with a smile” give me chills. When you write a song, does the impact it might have on the listener ever come into play?

BW: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that when I complete a song I have to be aware of what I am sharing. The content of my music is honest and sometimes a bit frank, but is more than less about myself, so I’m exposing a lot. I am singing about my dreams, past relationships, my family, deep shit. I am translating the impact of events into music, so I only hope that the ideas get across. The impact it might have on the listener though would never dictate whether or not I write something controversial, cliche, or anything in between. That said, I like the listener, they are much better than those that just hear. So I leave it up to the listener to decide whether that impact even exists.

HC: Obviously, some of the inspiration for your songs comes from personal experience. I find that some musicians tend to shy away from that type of reflection and focus on writing about others. How do you balance opening yourself up too much (or is it even something you think about)?

BW: Well, I enjoy writing about living through everyday beauty and bull shit, but there can be great lessons learned when things get mundane, challenging, good, bad, whatever. So my experiences and questions melt into dreams and deceiving fairy tales and sometimes I catalog the important stuff through song. I don’t really know about the balance of opening yourself up too much though, there is never too much. There is always more.

HC: How was playing a show with Public Enemy? Anything in particular memorable from the show?

BW: That was cool. That was with TFT out in California. GhostFace Killah was on the bill as well, and yeah it was cool. There was a large crowd and they were all jazzed on seeing Public Enemy so they came with some energy. The response to our set was good and I was with Cornbreadd backstage for a minute hanging out with Flava Flav and Ghost. It’s funny being in the same room with “famous” people, you feel obligated to have something really great to say to them or need to pay them a compliment. I captured some video of Flava Flav on my phone back there and he said he couldn’t be filmed, that he was under contract. So I stopped filming him and that was my Flava Flav moment. I realized that the only cool thing about being backstage was that I could tell people I was back there, so I left because it wasn’t really that important to me anyway. I wasn’t being passed the blunt that was circling around the room either so there wasn’t much point. I guess I don’t blame them. Flav fell off of the stage during his set.

HC: Which of your songs do you most enjoy playing live? Why?

BW: That’s a tough question because they all have a unique feel and complexity to them. And really what it boils down to are the collective songs as a set, so I would have to say all of the songs because they are all connected.

HC: Reviews of Geschichte have been glowing, with the Houston Press writing that you are “one of the most gifted, eclectically-minded musical catalysts in town.” Do people’s reaction to the album surprise you?

BW: Sure they do. The feedback that I have been getting has been interesting because its been not only very positive, but very diverse. I get asked frequently about my influences and people like to guess what bands they think might have inspired my music. I like it because I don’t think you can point a finger at what it really is, but somehow it’s reminding people of some great music so that can’t be bad. That review surprised me. That was the first written review that Geschichte received and it was a great compliment.

HC: How do you view the music scene in Houston–not from a social aspect, but from the quality of music currently being made in the city?

BW: It is incredible. I am humbled by some of the musicians I see and get to share the stage with in this city.

HC: What do you have planned to help promote Geschichte? Will you be doing shows outside Houston? Texas?

BW: Right now my focus is getting the record in to the hands of people that get music into the hands of people. Blogs, indie radio stations, magazines, etc. I have a few labels I would love to be on so I will send it to them, but I don’t know really how that all works. Once I have promoted this recording a little more then I think I will start planning to tour and play in other cities.

Thanks to Ben Wesley for taking the time out to answer these questions. Be sure to make plans to come out to Cactus Music this Saturday at 3pm to catch him live.

You can buy Geschichte at local record stores and at shows (including the in-store).

Tags: Interviews · Music · Show listings

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